Defining Family


On each of our trips to India, we would make the customary visits to the homes of various people, first relatives, then friends and finally, others who were linked to us through indeterminate bonds. The parents of our Indian-American friends belonged to this third category. While we interacted intimately with our friends, we barely knew their parents unless they had made a trip to the United States during the period of our acquaintance. On such visits to their homes in India, these Uncles and Aunties would shower us with hospitality, ask about their grandkids, and sometimes give us a small package of homemade goodies to be handed over. Since our return, such visits have become more poignant. They are clearly happy to hear that we are back for good. While they are pleased with the material success of their NRI children, they miss having them around. They cheer us for taking this bold step but I can sense an inexplicable sadness. We are their hope as well as reminders of the distance from their own children.

b693ffe824ce0c73fb1eadcb3e0457f3-2While I lived in the United States, I tried to make frequent trips to India but intense work pressures and abbreviated vacation schedules rarely permitted long trips. Cognizant of the time squeeze, I would ask my parents to come over, assuming that I would have more time to spend with them on their six-month visit. But for most parents, living in the United States means being socially isolated and physically dependent on their children. I did not realize the weight of this emotional burden until a few weeks ago.

“What did you think about U.S.A.?” I asked an elderly gentleman who had recently returned from his first visit, anticipating an interesting discussion about the trip.

“You mean U.H.A.?” he countered. Seeing my confused expression, he explained, “Under House Arrest.”

I know that many parents feel the same way. In my first few years in the United States, I naturally missed my parents but these feelings were intensified after I became a parent myself. I wanted to give my child the opportunity to interact with grandparents, which I counted as another loss suffered by children of immigrants.

In my childhood, I had two grandmothers, both of whom wore traditional nine-yard saris, yet were completely different personalities. My paternal grandmother, who had nine children, struggled through tough financial times but always kept her children clean, fed, and healthy. She hosted huge family gatherings, read novels in five languages, and always stayed focused on the “big picture.” My other grandma appreciated the finer things in life. She played the violin, knitted, and spent many hours concocting mouth-watering delicacies. She kept an immaculate house and fussed over little things. I know I inherited a mixed bag of genes from them; but more importantly, these inspiring ladies taught me different lessons. While one was a role model of strength in adversity, the other inculcated the habit of appreciating the arts.

By returning to India my 6-year-old daughter Aparna can spend quality and quantity time with grandparents in a setting where both of them are comfortable. While this sounds wonderful in theory, what it means practically for me is that I have to adjust to living with my in-laws.

Today we live in a two-story house where we occupy the upper floor while my in-laws live downstairs. This setup gives us a modicum of privacy, but we interact everyday. My Indian girlfriends were surprised when I mentioned these living arrangements. Like many newly-wed couples, especially the ones who have arranged marriages and move out of India, I had left India right after the wedding. The distance from family, while presenting its own challenges, also gave me time to get acquainted with my husband away from the inquisitive eyes of family members. For most couples, the comfort level in the insular family environment makes it difficult, if not impossible, for the nuclear family to fit back into the bigger family portrait. After having made autonomous decisions, we now have to patiently listen to advice—about eating out, staying out late, remedies for minor illnesses. It is not easy. But as with other choices, the benefits outweigh the initial difficulties of adjustment.

Quite often there is an unannounced school holiday. Without my in-laws around, I would be at my wit’s end trying to round up daycare at short notice. It is now possible for my husband and me to go to a movie or on a shopping expedition without having to drag Aparna along as we used to do, for every errand.

“Wear your bindi, comb your hair into two neat braids,” Aparna is reminded by her grandmother who arranges for the neighborhood henna artist to come during school vacations to indulge Aparna’s fancy for designer hands. Aparna plays “beauty parlor” with her and periodically offers pretend pedicures and shampoo services for a fee.

“Be gentle, talk softly, behave like a girl,” Aparna’s grandfather tells her when she is in one of her boisterous moods. She accompanies him on his evening walks and sometimes they spot peacocks in the park. On hot afternoons, they play “banking hours,” where she learns the basic elements of banking from her grandfather, a retired banker.

She gets a good dose of advice almost every day. But it is not just advice that she hears, it is different points of view. We as parents are focused on the daily details, providing for essentials and trying to instill a sense of discipline, but she is able to interact with them on a different plane. Unlike the United States, her life here is not cloistered; her interactions with other adults (and children) are totally spontaneous. Sometimes my opinions are different from that of my in-laws but I leave it to Aparna to sift through the messages she receives.

Family life is not all saccharine as portrayed in Bollywood movies. Watching real-life family interactions provides hands-on instructions for developing the art of peaceful coexistence and the ability to get along with a variety of people. What has turned out to be the real surprise for me is the fact that by returning to home turf I am on the same learning curve when it comes to practicing my interpersonal skills in the context of the larger community canvas that is India.

Ranjani Nellore, a former San Francisco Bay Area resident, now lives and writes in Hyderabad, India.

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